A Christian-Muslim Mosaic of Accommodation and Partition – By David Bertaina

David Bertaina on on Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam

Michael Philip Penn, Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 304pp., $59.95
Michael Philip Penn, Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 304pp., $59.95
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At the beginning of his reign (705-715), the caliph al-Walid inaugurated the creation of a sacred structure: the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus. But this symbol of Islamic political and religious power emerged under complicated circumstances bound up with Christianity. The mosque was built upon the site of the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist, from which many materials were repurposed in the new structure. Byzantine Christian artists helped to create the mosaics that adorned its walls and ceilings. These mosaics depicted pastoral images of trees, plants, rivers, and towns — all common background styles of Byzantine iconography — linking Christian ideas of Paradise with the Qur’anic images represented visually at the site. It is likely no coincidence that the cover of Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam includes images of these mosaics. As in the mosque’s emergence, Penn argues that the history of exchanges between Muslims and Syriac Christians attest to a far messier reality than what has traditionally been held and that it is more fruitful to think of the early Islamic period as one of gradual and protracted religious differentiation.

Penn’s study challenges the notion that Islam was a religious movement distinct from Christianity at its origins. Instead, he argues that the Muslim community developed alongside its monotheist neighbors and only parted ways with Christians as a separate religious movement by the late ninth century. This position reinforces what other scholars such as Fred Donner, Stephen Shoemaker, Robert Hoyland, and Garth Fowden, have argued, although Penn’s unique contribution is that he looks exclusively at Syriac sources and posits one of the latest partition dates of any academic. The concept of religious differentiation taking place over centuries has its parallel in the history of early Jewish-Christian relations, in which scholars have challenged the traditional view of a break that took place in the late first or early second century (see for example the edited collection by Adam Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed).

Penn’s motivations for producing this book arose out of his growing concern for reductionist accounts that other writers have used to perpetuate a narrative of hostile Christian-Muslim relations. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis functions as the starting and ending point of the book (David Nirenberg uses the same technique in his recently reviewed work), whereby Penn argues that scholars can respond more effectively to simplistic models of conflict or convivencia by incorporating diverse portraits from Syriac sources that more adequately reflect the full spectrum of encounters. Penn concludes that Middle Eastern Christians did not part ways with Muslims but recognized them as the “proximate other” that was too much like them rather than a distant “other.” (Penn adopts Jonathan Z. Smith’s term from “What a Difference a Difference Makes”).

For this reason, Syriac Christians primarily feared their religious similarities with Muslims rather than their differences. Syriac authors emphasized variances despite an organic process of coexistence because they were anxious about being subsumed by the dominant religious “other.” Thus the challenge for Syriac Christian authors was to articulate a distinct self-identity. Penn’s book is very much about identity history — that is, how Syriac Christians constructed their identity, how they adapted them to their own needs, and how historians study the Syriac reception and transformation of earlier identities. Syriac writers had a “crisis of differentiation” in which they overemphasized difference in theoretical texts precisely because, on the ground, it was much more difficult to discern. At the same time, Penn reads his historical sources suspiciously by approaching the texts not as historical documents that detail specific events in time and place, but as representations of a collective Syriac Christian memory. These constructions of Christian-Muslim relations ranged from positive to neutral to negative portraits, which correct models that postulate an “inevitable, unmitigated conflict between Christians and Muslims” (185) such as one finds in the works of Bat Ye’or.

When we speak of Christians envisioning Muslims, our picture is made fuller because there were four distinct churches: the East Syrians (so-called Nestorians) of Iraq and the Gulf, the Chalcedonian Melkites of Syria-Palestine, the West Syrian Miaphysites of Syria-Palestine, and the Maronites (found mostly in modern Lebanon). These communities responded to Islam differently due to their own geographical, political, and religious concerns, and by no means did any community respond only positively or negatively to the rise of Islamic civilization. Christians did not disappear from the Middle East at the advent of the Arab conquest, despite the fact that many histories of Christianity tend to shift their focus westward and ignore the region after the seventh century. By avoiding these pitfalls, we can see a greater continuum between Syriac Christianity and early Islam that was dynamic, permeable, and continually being renegotiated.

Recent scholarship on the use of Syriac sources for understanding Islam’s relationship with Christianity have tended to focus on boundary making via polemics and the uniqueness of each tradition (see, e.g., Sidney Griffith’s work, although he is generally concerned with Arabic-speaking Christianity). By contrast, Penn has reinforced his argument with the recent publication of a valuable primary source companion volume: When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (2015). What makes Envisioning Islam an important contribution to the discussion of early Muslim-Christian relations is Penn’s nuanced reading of Syriac sources, especially their interpretation of the Islamic conquest and the view of Islam as a heretical from of Christianity.

For instance, one enduring historical myth is the notion that Eastern Christians welcomed the Arab conquest. Everything from scholarly articles to textbooks to popular literature and websites all reproduce this fable. Yet the Account of 637, the Chronicle ad 640, and the Khuzistan Chronicle run contrary to this legend. Instead, Syriac Christians understood the conquest in political terms or as God chastising them for their sins. They did not anticipate their conquerors to remain. Nor did they speak about Islam as a distinctive religion and its motivation for the conquest. Later reactions in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephrem and the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius added apocalyptic elements to the historical event, asking why God would allow such a thing to happen to the Christian community. John bar Penkaye’s Book of Main Points used biblical models to interpret the conquest. Only in the ninth century did the historical account change, whereby the conquest was used by Christians to justify legal precedents for guaranteeing Christian life and property. Most importantly, Dionysius of Tel Mahre’s writings about the conquests incorporated into the Chronicle of 1234 and Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, were perpetuated by historians: “The result has been a widespread myth that, during the conquests, Syriac Christians conspired with Muslims against the Byzantines and welcomed the Arabs with open arms. The first two hundred years of Syriac conquest accounts easily disprove this contention.” Thus Syriac writings on the conquests initially described the terror of events, then interpreted why they happened, and finally began to explain what Christians should do because of them.

The proximate relationship between Christianity and Islam in Syriac sources is further accentuated by the way in which Syriac Christians defined Islam as a derivation of Christianity. By the late Umayyad period, Muslim conquerors were no longer solely identified as an ethnic group but as a community with distinctive beliefs and practices. These words and rituals were sometimes seen as a threat to Christian orthodoxy; that is, Syriac Christians used terminology that suggested several Muslim doctrines were derived from imperfect interpretations of Christian teachings. When Syriac authors began to recognize that their rulers professed a different kind of community, they did not depict Islam as completely foreign to Christianity, because Muslims “acted in very Christian-like ways.” Penn suggests that scholars have exaggerated divisions between Christians and Muslims in this early period when in fact differentiation was a slow process. For instance, the Chronicle of Zuqnin (ca. 775) is the first Syriac Christian text to use the term “Muslim” (Mashlmane), which indicates that only in the Abbasid period did Christians begin to adopt Muslim self-designations in their own writings. [While the term “Muslim” appeared rather late in Syriac literature, it is also true that earlier Syriac writers used Arabic calques of Syriac terms for Muslims, so that hanpa also carried the religious connotation of “Gentile monotheist” (hanif) for Muslims.] The Syriac Legend of the Monk Bahira, which claimed that Muhammad received his teachings from a heretical monk (Sergius/Bahira), suggests that by the ninth century, Syriac Christians had an adept understanding of details in Islam and a tendency to construct Islam as a heretical form of Christianity. In one of his key readings, Penn encourages us to interpret the depiction of Muslim leaders by Syriac Christian authors as an attempt to reassert Christian identity as distinguishable from Islam because of their deep involvement in Islamic legal and political life. Syriac texts were less hostile than Western sources, not because of fear of living under Muslim rule, but rather because such approaches lacked plausibility for a Syriac audience that live in close proximity to and was familiar with Muslims. In this situation, the best procedure was to Christianize Muhammad, which promoted the idea of a closer affinity between Christianity and Islam. Syriac authors aggrandized later leaders by portraying them as secret Christians or as patrons of their churches, or they acknowledged the authority of Muslim rulers as adjudicators in religious debates.

If theoretical and physical borders existed between Christianity and Islam, then they were constantly under assault at the social level. Places of religious co-habitation blurred boundaries, such as the Shrine of Sergius at Rusafa in Syria, the church/mosque of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, and the domed Church of the Kathisma. Legal sources presumed that border crossings were commonplace, including marriage codes, inheritance laws, and rules for accepting converts into one’s faith. Sacred spaces, meals, and courts were shared. Archaeological data, legal texts, and literary works “challenge the modern assumption of clearly defined boundaries between early Christianity and early Islam. The plethora of Syriac references to cross-confessional interactions hinted at these communities’ permeability.” Islamic literature referred to Christians infrequently because the legal sources were ideologically prescriptive and they were not interested in acknowledging the reality on the ground. Historical records indicate that Muslims were donors, visitors, and even prayed at monastic sites. On the ground, boundaries between the faiths were constantly blurring. Penn nicely sets up the distinction between theory (texts) and practice (daily life), while arguing the latter better represents the fuzziness of the actual experience for the members of these communities.

Despite the attractiveness of a history that muddles religious boundaries between Christians and Muslims, some caveats apply: Penn’s approach might be accused of beginning with an a priori conviction which then seeks out historical evidence to confirm that notion. For instance, does our modern dissatisfaction for intellectual rigor in theological debate (the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon) affect the narrative’s assumptions and conclusions? Penn’s arguments echo contemporary discomfort with confessional orthodoxy and theological ideas as normative. It is much more comforting to see our societies’ religious ignorance and preference for ambiguities read back into the past as well. Permeability also sounds tantalizing in the past because we are witnessing it in present religious institutions. Current disaffection with religious boundaries may very well be feeding into Penn’s conceptions about the historical past, as well as those of other historians who argue for a later partitioning of the two religions.

Methodology is an important component of any historical narrative. Penn uses reception history to document his argument, emphasizing how the sources are mostly rhetorical and construct memory. This method views sources through the lens of literary criticism for reconstructing (or deconstructing) the past. It examines change over time in the reception of an idea or image, but not the thing itself. The value of this technique is that it allows scholars to ask different questions of their sources. For instance, Penn applies the methods of literary criticism to his subjects, such as using Roland Barthes’s “reality effect” to describe certain authors as artificially constructing their experiences in a credible manner to authenticate their arguments. He suggests that we cannot facilely reconstruct specific events or the tenor of Christian-Muslim relations by scrutinizing these primary sources; their value is literary-historical. While this approach has unmistakable value and utility for raising new insights about the past, it is less effective at empathizing with individuals from earlier ages. For example, in describing how Syriac Christians created a template for the evil Muslim ruler, we should acknowledge that the template was based upon historically-verifiable violence. Syriac descriptions of Islam are valuable because they reflect the view of a community that was conquered and sometimes persecuted. That remains the case today. To his credit, Penn is willing to use empirical methods to historicize documents that do not purport to be historical. He also concedes: “Although one occasionally suspects a degree of hyperbole, there is little doubt that such reports reflected a wide range of suffering experienced by Syriac Christians in the seventh through the ninth centuries.” Therefore, while acknowledging the value of reception history, we must also recognize that other historical approaches can offer a complementary perspective on what happened to lead Syriac Christianity to become a minority group in the Middle East.

To illustrate this point, a recent archaeological report by Dr. Yotam Tepper discussed the transition of a church into building materials for a mosque in Shivta in the Negev. The archaeologist noted:

“When you go up to the mosque you step on thresholds that bear crosses,” he says. “That does not reflect a picture in which Abdullah and Theodorus come to the place together, and one goes off to the mosque and one to church. In my opinion, today we can show archaeologically that they did not operate alongside each other. There is no coexistence. There is a new landlord, who builds and uses the symbols of the former inhabitants in a provocative way. The church operated, stopped operating and then there was a mosque there. Add to this the sealed houses and the alleyways that were closed off and the water systems. There is a process that may have gone on for a generation, but certainly not 300 years. I still cannot say when it happened, but the puzzle has to be re-assembled,” Tepper says.

Tepper’s conclusions remind us that our scholarship is like the construction of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Our interpretations of history are built upon earlier foundations of which some insights are valuable to repurpose and others need to be discarded. Penn’s Envisioning Islam chooses to construct the edifice in such a way that the stones of Christianity and Islam are interlocked as part of the same grand structure, fitting together more tightly than is commonly assumed.